There’s a push to give Colorado’s agricultural workers more protections and better pay. The industry isn’t having it.Workers in the $41 billion industry cannot unionize and do not get overtime pay for what can be grueling work

By SAJA HINDI | shindi@denverpost.com | The Denver PostApril 25, 2021 at 6:00 a.m.

GREELEY–There’s an altar near the door of Alfredo Panzo Temoxtle’s Greeley apartment with a photo of his late brother, Juan Panzo Temoxtle, surrounded by flowers, candles, the shawl that covered him after his death, a rosary and other religious items.
His brother was about six weeks into the job at a La Salle dairy farm last month and tasked for the first time with operating a manure vacuum truck at Shelton Dairy. The truck fell into the pit, and he got trapped inside and submerged in liquid manure for 30 minutes before he could be freed. He was transported to North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley, where he died a day later.
“He was a very hard-working man,” Alfredo Panzo Temoxtle said of his brother, through a translator. “He came over here to the United States to have a better future for his kids” and had planned to stay a few years before heading back to Mexico to his wife and children. Alfredo himself isn’t sure he wants to stay in Colorado anymore: He has no closure from the tragic death and said he hasn’t heard from anyone at the dairy, though his brother’s wife in Mexico has.
Project Protect Food Systems Workers, an advocacy group that works with agricultural workers, says Juan Panzo Temoxtle’s death is a prime example of why agricultural workers need more protections under state law — something they say would happen under a bill introduced by Colorado Democratic lawmakers.
Sponsors of SB21-087 want to protect the tens of thousands of agricultural workers in Colorado from abuses and exploitation, give them the opportunity to unionize and seek remedies for violations without the fear of retaliation from their employers, ban a certain tool known to cause injuries, give workers proper safety training and ensure they receive fair wages.
“I don’t know if people realize this, but ag workers in Colorado are not guaranteed the minimum wage,” said Wheat Ridge Democrat Sen. Jessie Danielson, one of the sponsors. “They’re not guaranteed overtime pay, and they are not allowed to organize themselves into a union.”
But industry groups, ranchers and farmers say the $41 billion Colorado rural agriculture industry isn’t like other professions with 9-5 schedules, and that the provisions would force them to reduce the number of workers, could end their businesses and raise food prices even further.
Even the progressive Rocky Mountain Farmers Union believes the bill needs changes that take into account not just employees but also employers and the economic pressures they face.
“We support the ideas behind the bill, but there’s some things in there that we are concerned about because we don’t feel that it really recognizes the diversity of agriculture in Colorado,” farmers union Director of External Affairs Dan Waldvogle said. He added that the industry needs more flexibility in implementing some of the proposed regulations.
“Basic human rights”
Colorado has about 40,000 agricultural workers, a large portion of whom come from Mexico on seasonal or temporary federal visas, or are permanent residents. But there are more agricultural workers not counted in that 40,000 because they’re undocumented.
Farmworkers have been exempt from minimum wage requirements and protections provided to employees in other industries under the Fair Labor Standards Act. But some states have enacted their own protections for workers like California and New York, including allowing collective bargaining, and Washington state is considering legislation this year that phases in overtime pay.
Danielson said the Colorado bill will be crucial for safer working conditions — including mandated access to water and shade, or as she refers to it, “basic human rights.” It also prohibits the use of a short-handled hoe — a hand tool used for crops — which has been banned in California since 1975 because of the injuries it causes.
At her Loma ranch, sheepherder Jennifer Studt and her husband have 12,000 sheep, 900 goats and 23 employees, only two of whom are American citizens. She said she and her husband provide safe housing for their employees, which is federally required for workers who are in the U.S. on the H-2A temporary visa. She estimates they spend about $1,727 per employee per month on wages and about $500 per employee per month for food, not including housing costs.
Studt said many Americans are not interested in the types of manual labor jobs done on her ranch herding sheep — helping deliver babies during breeding season, feeding the animals, running farm equipment and preparing animals to be shipped. But they may have to reduce their employees by half if this bill passes, she said.
She’s concerned about being required to pay overtime after 12-hour days or over 40-hour work weeks, especially as many of the workers are on-call 24/7 during the breeding season. And she thinks some of the wording in the bill will lead to more lawsuits.
“It’s not that I don’t feel like they’re worth it. … part of it is what you can pay,” Studt said. The other part, she said, is many of the workers are happy with their wages because of how much more money they’re making here than they could be in their home countries.
A diverse industry
The proposed law has passed one Senate committee but is awaiting another hearing in a second committee before it can go to the full floor. The bill’s fiscal note estimates the state Department of Labor and Employment would need about $410,000 in funding to handle union filings, claims and administrative work.
There’s not much sponsors can do to get the vote of Colorado Springs GOP Sen. Larry Liston. He voted against the bill in committee, and said not everyone can do the tough work of agriculture, adding that those who do have developed good relationships with their employers and vice versa.
“The old adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’” he said. “I don’t think that what we’ve been doing, what the farmers have been doing for decades here in Colorado is bad.”
Yet expectations of farmers are constantly changing, said David Harold of Tuxedo Corn, which sells “Olathe Sweet” sweet corn. Farmers are expected to grow food at cheap costs, do it sustainably and without pesticides.
This bill would introduce a host of new rules, and though he said he supports workers getting paid well, he believes it’ll eventually harm any competitive advantage he has. Plus, he said, it could mean workers end up having more than one job — he likely wouldn’t pay overtime.Some industry groups like the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union say they are willing to work with sponsors to amend the bill. Waldvogle said any rule-making process related to worker protections should include broad input — including from farmers and ranchers whom the group feels are not properly represented in the bill’s creation of an advisory committee, especially when it comes to payroll changes.
Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican who also voted against the bill in committee, did so based partly on his own family’s experience running a greenhouse for four decades and his grandfather’s hobby farming.
The industry’s practices may not make sense to the average middle-class suburban Coloradan who’s never worked in agriculture or has family that does, Priola said. But he believes the bill goes too far.
“As it’s drafted, it really just doesn’t honor the nature of agriculture,” he said. “It’s much different than your standard 9-5 job. There needs to be flexibility, and case in point, if it’s time to harvest and your employees go on strike, you could be ruined, you could lose your entire entire crop or your entire work for six or nine months.”
A spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Agriculture said in a statement the agency is committed to working with the bill sponsors, industry and farming communities on legislation they could all support. Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg told committee members in March that the department had concerns about the burden the bill would place on producers.
A change for everyone
For Roberto Meza, a farmer in Bennett and part of the National Young Farmers Coalition, the bill is a good step for the agricultural industry and will require change by everyone involved.
Meza, who immigrated with his family from Mexico and had relatives and friends who were farmers growing up, believes both farmers and “discerning consumers” have a big part to play in the legislation — farmers must support their workers, and consumers must start to view food and costs associated differently.
“It’s great that (the bill) is bringing a lot of issues to our awareness in the agriculture community,” Meza said. “And it’s unfortunate that agriculture has experienced a devaluation of food to the point where farmers can’t really operate with the necessary margins needed to support their workers to honor their land and the environment, and their lifestyle.”
Project Protect Food Systems Workers is heavily backing the bill, with Fatuma Emmad arguing that agricultural workers’ rights “have been long neglected.”
Many of the organization’s “Promotora Network” members — who work with immigrant communities — testified during the first committee hearing about hazardous work and living conditions on behalf of ag employees and families who are worried about retaliation.
Luis Murillo, principal of Skoglund Middle School in the San Luis Valley, shared with lawmakers his experience of seeing children of agricultural workers who are unable to learn because of their living conditions and the irony in free and reduced-price lunches going to families who are producing food for others.
Project Protect Food Systems Workers “Promotora Network” started in response to COVID concerns among the immigrant communities in Colorado that work in agriculture, and it’s how Juan Panzo Texmoxtle’s death at Shelton Dairy came to light, according to the organization.
If this bill were already in place, Emmad said, workers at the dairy wouldn’t be afraid to publicly share their concerns or talk about what led to the accident, and rather be able to unionize and demand proper training and safety measures before using such equipment.
Industry groups have disputed that such a bill could have made a difference in Texmoxtle’s death, which is being investigated by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The dairy said in a statement that it’s cooperating with OSHA and the Weld County Sheriff’s Office investigation, and that “safety protocols and physical barriers were in place at the time of the tragedy.”

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